As fans of mountain man tales and early frontiersman stories, you may be familiar with the likes of Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, John Bidwell, John Charles Frémont, and Kit Carson. Did you know, however, that a famous mountain man warned the Donner-Reed party about taking Hasting’s Cutoff? How did he know better? James Clyman spent much of the early 1800s exploring, trapping, and guiding early American pioneers.
10 Facts About James Clyman
- Born on February 1st, 1792, on a farm in Virginia.
- Learned land surveying in the army during the War of 1812.
- Became a fur trapper at age 31.
- Survived a grizzly bear attack!
- Served under Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hawk Indian War in 1832.
- Married Hannah Mecombs in 1848 after guiding her family from Indiana to California.
- Settled down with his wife on a farm in Napa Valley.
- Four of his five children died of scarlet fever.
- Wrote poetry, of a sort.
- Died peacefully on December 27th, 1881.
A Restless Mind – The Beginning Of A Frontiersman
“The human mind can never be satisfied never at rest always on the search for something new some strange novelty.” – James Clyman
James Clyman was born on February 1st, 1792, on Virginia farmland his father rented from George Washington. By his mid-teens, his family had moved twice (to Pennsylvania and Ohio), beginning a long life of wondering and wandering for Jim.
He fought in the war of 1812 and then took a hiatus to farm in Indiana for a while.
Clyman In The Adventurous 1820s
While collecting pay for some survey work in 1823, Jim met William Henry Ashley, co-owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur Incorporated, and became a member of Ashley’s Expedition, aka “Ashley’s Hundred,” alongside celebrated trappers, traders, and mountain men like Jedediah Smith.
That same year, fellow expedition member Hugh Glass surprised a mother grizzly and her cubs while scouting for the game. Although the mauled Glass managed to kill the bear, Jedediah Smith had various head wounds, including a mostly torn-off ear. After the rest of the party refused to try, Clyman took up a needle and thread and sewed the ear back on the best that he could.
“This gave us a lesson on the character of the grizzly Bear which we did not forget.” – James Clyman
On The Hunt For The Mississippi Of The West
Since the late 18th century, there existed a controversial belief among western explorers that a river in the west let out into the Pacific Ocean, much like the Mississippi River let out to the Gulf of Mexico and then the Atlantic. The discovery of the Buenaventura River, San Buenaventura River, or Río Buenaventura, would open up travel and trade more fully, which spurred many explorations of the area. The mythical Mississippi of the west was believed to cross through the Great Salt Lake.
Canoeing The Great Salt Lake
Although the final myth-busting is often credited to John Charles Frémont’s group in the early 1940s, Clyman’s clan beat them by about two decades. In 1826, while on the hunt for new beaver trapping territory, Jim, Moses “Black” Harris, Louis Vasquez, and Henry G. Fraeb circumnavigated the Great Salt Lake in canoes in about 24 days, proving that the lake did not let out into the Pacific Ocean.
James Clyman in The 1830s
Jim’s Utah wanderings didn’t end at the Great Salt Lake. Just a few years after serving under Abraham Lincoln in the 1832 Illinois Black Hawk Indian War and running a sawmill in Wisconsin, he was ready to explore the west again. He joined a wagon train to Oregon and then accepted the task of carrying letters to the U.S. consul in California.
“James Clyman as we saw him in 1836, was the most perfect specimen of the frontier man – tall, spare, quick-eyed, active, and untiring – in his dress of buckskin looking the picture of hunter and trapper that would have adorned well the page of frontier romance…” – Wisconsin Frontier Life, Wisconsin Historical Society
The Donner-Reed Party Story You Never Hear About
Ready to head out of Cali, on April 16, 1846, Clyman joined up with Lansford W. Hastings to put Hasting’s “shortcut” to California to the test. Hastings had already published The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which introduced the more straightforward trail, in 1845, but had never actually traveled it. The group tried the route in reverse – from California through Salt Lake and Weber Canyon.
They Could Have Arrived In September
After an arduous 25-day journey on pack horses, they arrived only one week earlier than a group from the same party that had split off at the Humboldt River towards Fort Hall – the more reliable and well-known California Trail. Upon returning, Jim ran across his former Black Hawk War companion, James Reed, and the rest of the Donner-Reed party. He warned them not to take the journey but to no avail.
“If Reed and the Donners had listened to Clyman they would have achieved California in mid-September, as most of the other emigrants did…” – Richard Rhodes, The Farther Continent Of James Clyman
Learn More About California Trail History
James Clyman isn’t the only unsung hero of the westward expansion. We invite you to explore more of our early American pioneers’ adventures, trials, and lifestyles at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, Nevada. Contact us today for more information on the latest exhibits and upcoming events. We look forward to bringing the history of the California Trail to life for you.